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Where the candidates stand on student-loan debt

The presidential field has finally narrowed, which means if you've yet to vote in a primary, your choices for who to vote for have become a lot simpler.

If you have student loans, there are likely a few key areas you'd like the next president to fix. According to our "Student Loan Vote" survey, most respondents indicated they'd like to see more student loan refinancing opportunities. Not far behind were student loan tax breaks along with free tuition at community colleges.

If student loan debt is one of your top issues on the ballot this year, here's what you need to know about the candidates' proposals for dealing with the growing student loan debt crisis.


Students protest ballooning student loan debt for higher education and rally for tuition-free public colleges in New York
Cem Ozdel | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Students protest ballooning student loan debt for higher education and rally for tuition-free public colleges in New York

Hillary Clinton

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have presented comprehensive plans to help borrowers eliminate student-loan debt. However, Clinton and Sanders have different approaches to dealing with the costs of education and how much of the bill the government should foot.

Clinton created what she calls the "New College Compact" to address the issues surrounding present and future education costs.

Her main initiative to address existing student-loan debt is to allow borrowers to refinance their student loans at current rates available to students taking out new loans. Her campaign website states this would allow an estimated 25 million borrowers to obtain relief, with the average borrower saving about $2,000 in total.

Clinton also wants to reduce interest rates on new student loans, as well as make it easier for borrowers to enroll in income-driven repayment programs that would cap monthly payments at no more than 10 percent of discretionary income.

In terms of tuition costs for future students, Clinton's plan promises to provide aid so students would never have "to borrow to pay for tuition, books, and fees to attend a four-year public college in their state." However, her plan requires families to "do their part by making an affordable and realistic family contribution."

Clinton's entire plan would come with an estimated cost of $350 billion over 10 years.

Overall, while Clinton's plan would be costly and may run into resistance from Republicans, her proposal provides a holistic solution to the student-debt crisis at a reasonable price tag.

Bernie Sanders

Similarly, Bernie Sanders has outlined a detailed policy for tackling student loan debt.

He has specifically stated that he wants to "stop the federal government from making a profit on student loans," from which he says the government will bring in $110 billion in the next decade. Instead, he'd lower student loan interest rates. And like Clinton, Sanders proposes letting borrowers refinance student loans at current rates.

However, Sanders seeks to take his plan further in the amount of aid provided to future students. In fact, he proposes making tuition completely free at all state colleges and universities.

This means another one of the major differences between Sanders' plan and Clinton's is the cost. At an estimated $75 billion per year, his plan would cost more than double what Clinton's proposal would, with no defined timeline.

While free tuition would go a long way in helping cut the costs of college, there are real concerns here about how this plan would be funded — not to mention, how receptive conservatives would be to implementing it. Sanders proposes funding these programs through a new tax on Wall Street, but it's unclear if there's the political will in U.S. Congress to support this tax.

Others may question the necessity to provide free tuition to students whose families would otherwise be able to afford at least some of the costs of college.


Donald Trump

On the opposite end of the spectrum from Clinton and Sanders, Donald Trump hasn't spoken much or published any policy positions related to solving the student loan debt problem.

So far, Trump has only written and spoken out broadly against student-loan debt. For instance, in his 2015 book "Crippled America," Trump wrote, "These student loans are probably one of the only things that the government shouldn't make money from and yet it does."

However, general statements like this and a lack of any specific proposal to aid student loan borrowers leaves us to wonder: What would Trump do, if anything, related to student loan debt? With the lack of even a basic plan, as well as no voting record, it's impossible to endorse Trump's approach to student loan debt reform.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz has yet to say much publicly on what he would do as president about growing student-loan debt in the country. Not even his website addresses education costs.

However, we can look to Ted Cruz's voting record in the U.S. Senate for some indication.

He voted in favor of the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013, which ensured all federal loans would be fixed going forward, tying federal student loan rates to financial markets and placing a cap on rates. However, while this might seem like a positive move toward solving the student debt crisis, the bill didn't do much to address the growing cost of attending college.

On the other hand, he voted against Sen. Warren's amendment to a Republican budget resolution in 2015, which would have allowed borrowers to refinance their student loans at current rates.

While I can't say conclusively what Cruz would or wouldn't do about student loans as president, his voting record, along with his silence on the issue, doesn't give much hope for current or future borrowers.


John Kasich

Gov. John Kasich is the only remaining Republican candidate who's made meaningful comments about the growing cost of college.

Kasich often points back to what he's done about student loans and education costs while serving as governor of Ohio.

In Ohio, Kasich has proposed a $120 million college-debt-relief fund to help borrowers repay their loans. This proposal would provide funds to local graduates who remain in Ohio to work at certain in-demand jobs.

To address the costs for current and future students, Kasich's 2015 state budget implemented a two-year tuition freeze for state colleges and universities and increased state funding for the institutions.

In terms of education-related policy outlined on his campaign website, Kasich primarily focuses on keeping college costs down. He proposes offering high school students more opportunities to earn college credits with high school courses. He also mentions Ohio's plan to pay college and universities based on performance, measured by how many students graduate.

But again, we're left wondering: What specific steps would this Republican presidential candidate actually take to address student loan debt if he's elected? While Kasich appears the Republican candidate most likely to do something on student debt, there's still a huge divide between his remarks and the Democrats' comprehensive proposals.

Commentary by Andrew Josuweit, CEO of Student Loan Hero, a company that combines easy-to-use tools with financial education to help millions of Americans living with student loan debt. Follow him on Twitter @josablack.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.